Sunday, August 10, 2014
‘BOONVILLE REDEMPTION’ – MY DAY AS A ‘BACKGROUND’, PLUS ‘SAN FERNANDO VALLEY RELICS!
BOONVILLE REDEMPTION – My Day as a ‘Background’
This day of adventure actually started a couple of weeks ago, with a call from Sheri Keenan, Peter Sherayko’s assistant at Caravan West, his company that provides props, saddles, costumes, guns and horses for Western movies, TV shows and commercials. Caravan West also provides The Buckaroos, which started as a group of horsemen Peter corralled to ride on both sides of the law in the film TOMBSTONE, and now includes history-savvy background actors with their own accurate wardrobe and props. Peter knows that I’ll always jump at the chance to be on-set on a western, to watch the work, and interview cast and crew for The Round-up. But it got better. Sheri asked, “How’d you like to be a victim of the of the San Francisco earthquake?”
“Who wouldn’t!?” Last November Peter put me in the movie WESTERN RELIGION as a background poker-player in a saloon-gunfight sequence, and I’d had a great time. I said ‘yes!’ right away. “The film is called BOONEVILLE REDEMPTION.” She told me it was the story of a young girl in 1906 Boonville, California, searching for her father. “Pat Boone plays the doctor, and you’ll be a patient, probably with a broken leg. You were asleep when the quake hit, and your cabin caved in, so you just pulled on what clothes you could grab as you ran out.” No problem – that’s how I usually dress!
Sheri is in charge of ‘background casting’. ‘Background’ is the current term for a job that has been called ‘supernumeraries’ on stage, and ‘atmosphere’, but usually ‘extras’ on film. If MUZAK, or ‘elevator music’, is the music you don’t hear, ‘backgrounds’ are the people you don’t see, but you’d sense something was wrong if you didn’t see them. There’s something eerie and post-apocalyptic about streets that are deserted aside from the principal actors.
Last week Sheri called me in for a costume fitting, and I headed to Agua Dulce, where Peter has his wardrobe and props, and a small western town. I modeled a succession of long-john shirts, period western pants with suspenders, and rough tweed jackets – the best jacket had a bullet-hole, but thankfully no blood. Yet. Last, I squeezed into nearly a dozen pairs of boots until we found the right ones to complete the ‘dressed-with-a-broken-leg-while-my-house-crashed-about-me’ ensemble. They would decide on-set if I needed a splint for my leg, if I’d have one or both boots on – I was hoping for one, with a big toe sticking through a sock-hole – and if one or both suspenders would be on my shoulders. I was told that if I wore my costume to set it would save time. Sheri also suggested I not put on the boots until I got to set, unless I was used to driving with them.
Monday morning I was up before seven, dressed and out and on the road before 7:30, heading for the Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills. It was a quick drive – only twice as long as the half-hour my optimistic GPS predicted – to one of the oldest of the still-standing western towns in the TMZ. (Note: that TMZ that folks always refer to is short for ‘thirty mile zone.’ Back in the old Hollywood studio days, the corner of La Cienega and Beverly Boulevard – home of the original Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – was deemed the center of the L.A. film industry. Any location more than thirty miles from that point was ‘out of the TMZ,’ and required additional travel payments to movie company employees.)
Still-standing may be a misnomer, since the current western street is at least the third to have graced this rural area so close to L.A. proper. Paramount Pictures bought the land in 1927, and for decades shot dozens of big and small, western and non-western films there – here’s a link to a partial list: http://www.nps.gov/samo/planyourvisit/upload/ParamountRanchFilmList.pdf
By the mid-1940s the ranch was used less and less, and Paramount sold it. The Hertz family bought the ranch land in 1953, bought buildings from RKO’s western town in Encino (built for CIMMARON in 1931), which Howard Hughes was bulldozing, and trucked them to Agoura Hills. In 1980 the ranch was bought by the National Park Service, and re-built to the old RKO specifications for the TV series DR. QUINN, MEDICINE WOMAN. It’s a popular filming location for features, TV, and new media – recently the HULU comedy-western series QUICK DRAW filmed their first and second seasons here, and in the past few years I’d been present for the shooting of GANG OF ROSES 2 and WYATT EARP’S REVENGE. The hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse shot their western movie BIG MONEY RUSTLAS there.
I shed my sneaks, pulled on my boots, and followed the ‘base camp’ signs, trodding the bridge Dr. Quinn often crossed in a carriage, and entered the western street. It was already getting hot. It would reach the low nineties later in the day. I spotted Addie Radpour as he trotted by. An excellent rider and polo player, I can’t recall visiting a Western set when he wasn’t present and on a horse. He pointed me down the western street, past and behind the Dr.’s office.
Hidden back there is an open but covered picnic area with about twenty long tables. That’s where the crew will be fed, and cast and crew can hang out between takes. “This is where they’re holding the background people,” a production assistant told me. They’d been shooting for a couple of weeks, and on some days had used quite a few people, but today there were just eight of us, counting Sheri, who looked very elegant before going into make-up. She did a very kind thing for me right away: she told me to lose the jacket. It looked good, but I’d melt in it on a day like that. All those present worked for Peter before, except for one couple whose names I didn’t get, who were investors in the film.
Sheri helps Dian with her costume
Dapper with bowler and walking-stick, Allen Gonzalez is a Buckaroo going back to TOMBSTONE: “I was one of the red-sash gang,” he told me. He has made a study of ways to ‘distress’ clothes to look natural – he had a lot of suggestions for making my boots look better and my shirt look worse. He looked at the way my pants fit, tucked into my boots. An actor that he had worked with, “…noticed that my britches were all messed and kept riding up. He suggested that if I wanted to keep them neat, I go to a bicycle shop, buy two of the two-inch wide straps with the Velcro on ‘em. Then take the boots off, tie the pants down flat with the Velcro straps, pull the boots back up. He said, they’ll look clean, very neat, and they will not bunch up on you. Jack Palance told me that.”
“Wow! What movie did you do with Jack Palance?”
“I did a Taco Bell commercial with Jack Palance.”
“Did he have any other good advice?”
“Yes, about horses: don’t trust ‘em!” He laughed. “He said look at their ears, and if their ears starting turning back and leaning a little bit, back off, and let them do what they’re going to do. And sometimes if their tail is starting to rise, they’re going to swat you with it. And when they do that, they’ll turn their hips to knock you off.”
(Note: Jack Palance did not start off as a great horseman in his first western, SHANE. He initially had so much trouble getting on and off of his horse smoothly that, in his first scene, they played the film of his dismount in reverse to fake his re-mount.)
Allen told me that since becoming a Buckaroo he’d worked in Westerns with Peter every year for more than twenty. “I’ve enjoyed it because they’re so many things to learn, so many things to see, so many people to meet. You may be dressed up and looking very dapper; the next thing you know you’re all greased up, beaten up, beaten down, broken leg . Whatever they want you to do for the next scene. You never know. I have been from an Indian to a miner to a hobo. They’ve cut off my ear, branded my cheek – you never know what they’re going to have you do.”
Sheri with Peter Sherayko
We were then all lined up while the costume designer, Martha, looked us over, and approved us all, though telling me I couldn’t wear my glasses for the shoot. I’d learned on WESTERN RELIGION that while most modern eyeglass lenses were rectangular, 19th and early 20th century lenses were perfect Harry Potter (or Harold Lloyd) circles.
'The Wolf' making Allen look bad
Two at a time we were escorted to the make-up trailer to be beaten up – or actually made to look beaten up, and dirty. Make-up man Mike Michaels, a.k.a. ‘The Wolf’, did a job on Allen and then me, dirtying up our faces, necks and hands with paints and powders, and giving us wounds and injuries – in the picture you can see the break he gave Allen across the bridge of his nose. When I mentioned that I wished my character had a hat, he thoughtfully sprayed my balding pate with sunscreen.
'The Wolf' did a job on me as well
Back in the ‘holding area’ I chatted with the rest of us backgrounders. Evangelos Themelis might sound like an untypical westerner – aside from Western Athens – but America has always been the melting pot for the world, never more so than after the Gold Rush helped open up the West. Besides, he’s got a great look for the period, with long black hair, black clothes, and an eagle-eyed intensity. I asked him how a guy of obviously Greek background drifted out west. He laughed. “It was easy; I just got a horse. I’m an actor – this is what I do. I’ve been working with Peter Sherayko for two or three years. I’ve been in a lot of movies. I’m in RED STATE. I’m in THE MUPPETS. I love Westerns. I love the clothing, the style, the boots – I love wearing boots. You know what they say: once you go Western, you never go back.”
“Were you born in Greece?”
“Yes. I came here when I was fifteen.”
“Did you see Westerns in Greece?”
“Yes, of course. I loved the cowboys and Indians. I love the Sergio Leone movies. Clint Eastwood stuff. I love John Wayne; that guy was a cowboy. He was great, and he was a stuntman before he became an actor. First a football player, then a stuntman, then an actor. For myself, I can’t pick a favorite role because they’re all so unique, they’re all so different. It’s this world of fantasy that you live in, and it’s unended. And every day you learn something.”
Rayne and Dian
Dian Roberts comes from Trinidad and Tobago. She’d recently decided, after eighteen years, to retire from background work: the shoots were usually in downtown L.A., and the commutes were endless. But when she can do a local job like this, especially a Western, she’s eager to. Rayne Davis has done it for a long time as well. Dressed in overalls, with a big tan cowboy hat, he was quickly nicknamed ‘Farmer John’ on this production, and he is the spitting image of the man on the sausage labels.
The mood on a set is usually generated by the people on top. Director Don Schroder, writer-producer Judy Belshe-Toernblom, and star Pat Boone are all in a great mood, and it trickles down. The tension is minimal. While treated respectfully, background actors know they’re not the center of attention, and must be patient until they’re needed. When I did WESTERN RELIGION, I was on-set at eight-thirty a.m., but not needed until after 9 p.m. So I was very happy when, in the late morning, we were needed. As we were being led to the set, Sheri called me back, and put a hat on me. Hot, bright, and sunny as it would be, I was very grateful.
Our first set-up was just outside the doctor’s office. There were two short benches, and four of us wounded survivors of the quake sat out there, waiting for help from Doc Woods (Pat Boone). Nobody had said anything further to me about a broken leg, and I didn’t remind them – all at once the idea of wearing a splint for hours had lost its appeal. A couple of young women came up to freshen our make-up, wounds and dirt, and to make our clothes look not so good. Folks like me, who had been provided wardrobe, were fine with it. Not so, folks who wore their own; they said that what the women wanted to put on the clothes was not dirt, but paint. Once on the clothes, the paint was difficult and expensive to dry-clean out; they opted to rub dirt from the street on themselves.
In the scene, post earthquake, Melinda (Emily Hoffman), the little girl who is the center of the story, is pleading with her mother, Alice (Shari Rigby), to let an injured friend stay with them. Mother says they can’t, and friend Doris (Stephanie Linus Okereke), volunteers to let the boy stay with her and her Uncle James (Gregory Thompson). (Note: Stephanie plays the daughter of freed slaves from Nigeria. She is in fact from Nigeria, and a major film star there and in Ghana, as well as a writer, director and producer.)
Doris and Uncle James had just ridden into the scene in a buckboard. They’ll ride out again at the end of the sequence. While the wagon is stopped, the back end of the horse is in frame. Just out of the shot, wrangler Kevin McNiven holds the horse’s head. He rubs the horse’s chest, just under the neck, continuously – just like I do at home, with my Jack Russell. It keeps the horse calm, so he doesn’t move, and move the wagon, which could ruin the shot.
While the big drama is taking place in the foreground, in sharp focus, in the blurry background me, Evangelos, Dian and Rayne are waiting to see the doctor. Evangelos is having a very animated silent conversation, back and forth with me and Dian. I, method actor that I am (hah!), am trying to decide what parts of my body hurt the most. I decide to stick a leg straight out, like it’s busted. Then I realize that I can’t: they’ve already done one take, and everything has to match. I concentrate on breathing heavily, and feeling light-headed. As the day gets hotter, I don’t have to fake either one.
After covering the action from several angles, we break for lunch. As a general rule, the etiquette is that actors eat first, crew second, background last. There was salad, two kinds of pasta, chicken cutlets, a stew with sausage, and some vegetable thing. Not wanting to be a glutton, I skipped the vegetable thing.
After lunch, we backgrounds were brought to a two-story building across from the doctor’s office. Being across the street instead of close-by on the porch, I couldn’t tell what the gist of the scene being filmed was, but it really didn’t matter. We were making our own little movie, albeit in long-shot and out-of-focus. We’d been through the earthquake too, and had our own stories to live. One couple was placed on the steps halfway up to the second floor. Others were crossing. Dian and I were walking along the street together in the first run-through. As we were walking back, I offered her my arm. She took it, and on the second run-through we walked arm-in-arm. An assistant director saw and liked it. “Why don’t you support her, like she’s been injured, and you’re taking her to the doctor?” Great – it started feeling very real, very natural.
Allen commented, “She looks too classy for you, Henry. But now she’s lost her home. Now she needs you.” There were a lot of run-throughs, a lot of takes, and our story got better and better. After an hour and a half of this, I was telling her about how much money I’d saved from prospecting; that I’d had my eye on a few prime acres with good water. I don’t know how the other movie was going, but by the time they were done with the set-up, our characters were engaged!
The next scene was back in front of Doc Woods’ office. If it sounds like we’re spending much too long a time in one place, that’s the way movies are always shot: you shoot all the scenes for the entire movie that will take place at any given location before moving on. This scene would take place earlier in the story than the first one, much sooner after the quake. Melinda and her friend, a boy named Shakespeare (Nicholas Neve) ride up in a wagon to the doctor’s office. The boy’s leg is badly injured, bleeding, held with a tourniquet. The make-up is creepily convincing. Doc Woods will come out, see the injury, and get help to carry the boy inside.
Pat Boone crossing, Gregory Thompson by wagon, Emily Hoffman
and Nicholas Neve in wagon, director Don Schroder in Panama hat
Emily and injured Nicholas in the wagon
The camera is set up to shoot the long way down the street. There will have to be a lot of background action. Props are scattered to suggest the aftermath of a quake: signs are dangling, furniture tipped, lumber spilled across the boardwalk and street. As we do run-throughs, we backgrounders are trying to come up with business to do – righting fallen chairs and such. Of course, the more things you straighten up, the more you’ll have to tip over again for the next run-through. Then an assistant director asks me, “How would you feel about lifting a plank. And carrying it over your shoulder.”
I’m given a 1 inch by 8 inch plank, about ten feet long. I see Rayne is given a 1 inch by 12 inch plank – I figure he’s got a better agent than I do. Then I find out I’ve got a lot more business to do with mine. After one or two walk-throughs, they decide it’s more natural under my arm than over my shoulder. Here’s the action: shot opens on me – well, on my arm, and the plank under it. On action I start walking, and the plank disappears to reveal Melinda and Shakespeare in the back of the wagon. I will continue walking until I’m clear of everyone with my plank, make a right turn, and walk down the street, where I’ll be seen – or at least I’ll be visible – leaning my plank against a building, then starting to straighten things again. I’m told it looks great through the lens!
Costars Pat Boone and Emily Hoffman
For the next hour and a half, every couple of minutes I hoist up my plank and start walking. They do a lot of takes from a lot of angles. Incredibly, with all the times I turn with that ten foot long plank under my arm, I never hit the camera, or the director, or the kids in the wagon, or the horses, or Melinda’s mother, who’s waiting for her cue to run in.
Costars plank and me
I must have done it half a dozen times before I realized that, beside the wagon with Melinda and Shakespeare, is a buckboard. And sitting in that one are Dian and Allen. Looking cozy. Dian, my fiancé from the previous scene. And Allen, the one who brought us together in the first place! And every time the director called “Action!” I had to heft my plank and march by that buckboard and pretend I wasn’t dying inside! Women are fickle. So are friends.
I’d had a chance to do a fast interview with Emily Hoffman between set-ups, while she was petting Addie’s horse. Now, between takes, I chatted with her and Nicholas Neve, as they waited in the back of the wagon, and I was struck by what nice kids they were. Patient and cheerful, funny without being wise guys. Professional, and clearly happy to be there. Contrast them with the tourist kids who turned up from time-to-time to watch the filming. Concepts as basic as ‘don’t talk and don’t move for two minutes – we’re doing a take’ was beyond them. No discipline at home. In one case I saw the dad of a pair of trolls sitting in his car in the distance, too lazy to get out and supervise his spawn.
I was startled to hear, “That’s a wrap! The actors can go.” It was barely six. We all seemed to move reluctantly to pack up and go. It was a great experience. It always is. I can’t count the number of times actors, stuntmen, extras, and people on every crew position imaginable have said to me, “You’re getting paid to play cowboys and Indians. How can you beat that?”
Next Round-up, I’ll have my interviews with Pat Boone and Emily Hoffman, writer and producer Judy Bleshe-Toernblom, and director Don Schroder.
SAN FERNANDO VALLEY RELICS!
Most cities have FaceBook pages devoted to their histories – I follow some from New York City, Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco and Burbank. One of my favorites for the last couple of years is San Fernando Valley Relics – they post great, often nostalgic, images of people and places from the Valley, mostly from the 20th Century. But I was surprised to learn that, while most such sites are a state of mind, floating in the ether, there is an actual, physical place for Relics, The San Fernando Valley Relics Cultural Museum.
Writer Julie Ann Ream has invited me to several great-sounding events at this place, but I’ve never been able to get to one until this Friday night, when I attended their Valley Relics and April Lief's Kids of The San Fernando Valley present The Big Summer Bash! The museum is located in Chattsworth, which was home to the legendary Iverson Movie Ranch. The wide open spaces are pretty much gone now in Chattsworth.
The museum is in an industrial area, and the signs on the warehouse building mention not only Relics but Tiles. The event was from six to eleven, and it was the only thing happening that night in that part of Chattsworth. I parked a block away, and my wife and I strolled towards the ever-louder sound of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and the aroma from the grilled cheese sandwich truck in front. There were more than a dozen classic cars parked there, mostly from the fifties and sixties, and plenty of enthusiasts milling about. Inside, the first several rooms were full of cabinets of Valley memorabilia – high school yearbooks, class photos, dozens of ashtrays, match-packs and brochures from restaurants and amusement areas that are no more.
On the left was a room of Julie Anne Ream’s family memorabilia – and what a family. She’s cousin or niece or granddaughter to crème de la crème western wardrobe designer Nudie; last of the singing cowboys Rex Allen; western singer and character actor Cactus Mack; and sometime western villain, sometime western composer, sometime Frankenstein, and sometimes bartender at Miss Kitty’s Longbranch, Glenn Strange. The room is full of posters, photos, lobby cards, costumes by Nudie, and even the little rocking-horse he had in his store for kids to ride.
The next room was the BIG one, with a collection of giant electric signs rescued from iconic Valley businesses. The Palomino Club was the top venue for country and western music, and later rock, for Southern California. Other favorites that exist in signage only are Valley Ranch Barbecue, Love’s Barbecue, The White Horse Inn, and Henry’s Tacos. Items of particular interest to Western fans are flyers from the Corriganville Movie Ranch, a slate-shaped sign from Iverson’s Movie Ranch, and several Nudie-customized cars, including wagon-styled trailer he made for Roy Rogers.
It’s an eye-bugging, mind-boggling jumble that will delight anyone who’s lived in the area, or interested in pop-culture of the 1950s-1980s. What’s needed most of all is more labeling of mystery items and pictures, but I’m sure that’s coming. This obvious labor-of-love is opened to the public only on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and you can arrange private tours Monday through Friday from ten ‘til three. The address is 21630 Marilla St., Chattsworth 91311. The phone is 818-678-4934. You can learn plenty more at their site, here: http://valleyrelics.org/
MENAHEM GOLAN – 'ISRAELI WESTERN' PRODUCER – DIES
Israel-born writer and producer Menahem Golan, who with his partner Yoram Globus built CANNON FILMS into an action powerhouse in the 1980s, has died. He produced over 200 movies, including a pair of Israel-lensed Spaghetti Westerns top-lining Lee Van Cleef; GOD’S GUN (1976), and VENGEANCE (1977), aka KID VENGEANCE, aka TAKE ANOTHER HARD RIDE.
THAT’S A WRAP!
That’s it for today! Next week, in addition to part two of my BOONVILLE REDEMPTION coverage, I’ll have my review of the newest four-pack of Gene Autry movies, and who knows what else! Have a great week!
All Original Contents Copyright August 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved